Jessica Laskey with Nicole Berry, Stories on Stage Sacramento's September 25 actor
Stories on Stage Sacramento's Casting Director, Jessica Laskey, in conversation with Nicole Berry, the actor who will perform an excerpt from Erika Mailman's award-winning novel The Murderer's Maid, Friday September 25 at 5:00 pm via Zoom. Register for the free performance here. If you can't make that time, don't worry! The performance will also be recorded and available on our YouTube channel for later viewing.
This month, actor Nicole Berry takes on the role of Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan, Lizzie Borden’s Irish maid and the title character of author Erika Mailman’s chilling crime thriller The Murderer’s Maid. Listen in as our casting director Jessica Laskey talks to Berry about her background, her creative influences and how she prepared for her role as the only witness to the sensationalized crimes attributed to Borden in 1892.
JESSICA: So, let’s start at the beginning. How did you first get into acting?
NICOLE: I grew up in an extremely rural, economically hardened area in New England where the main source of work was a Ruger’s gun factory. People were unhappy and alcoholic—it was scary no matter how beautiful the fireflies and autumn leaves were. I didn’t realize until I was in my 30s that maybe that was why I was a neurotic child…But I got to be part of this short-lived youth acting program in town that made me realize there was something in me that chomped at the bit (to perform). I was still really shy, but I was eager on stage—I acted, sang, performed in talent shows and I was a swing person in chorus (a fill-in for any vocal part), but it was still the seed of skill and not yet in full bloom.
I didn’t think maintaining a life or career in theater or film was something someone of my class had a right to. I thought you had to be born into it. I was actually going to be a veterinarian. My grandmother had moved out to California and wanted me to go to UC Davis—I had really good grades—so I moved to El Dorado County and graduated in the top 10 percent of my high school class. The scheduling didn’t work out to join the high school acting program, but I did hang out with the drama kids.
As I got older, people would always ask me if I was an actor. What I was was a cheesemonger (I helped open the Sutter Creek Cheese Shop and I’d go to farmers markets and talk about cheese). I did a segment for National Cheese Day on Good Day Sacramento and afterward, the producer asked, “What else do you do?” I didn’t know what she meant. But people asked me again and again if I was an actor, to the point that I thought, “Am I?” I really didn’t think that was allowed to be a job until an “aha” moment in my 30s when I gave myself permission to pursue it.
JESSICA: You’re certainly a creative force—you act on stage and on screen, you write poetry, stage plays and screenplays and you even do pen-and-ink drawings. How do you stay creative?
NICOLE: To be a good writer and actor, the best thing is to live life—and experience tragedy, unfortunately. If you’re living life and taking chances, there will be tragic things that happen in and out of your control, which is haunting, but the more experiences you have and the more loving hands you have to help you through, the better.
I also get inspiration from people. When I moved to El Dorado, it was a larger area with more kinds of people and greater diversity (than in my hometown). I get inspired by other people’s curiosity—about food, about me, about each other.
You have to give yourself permission to be interested in different aspects of life and, ultimately, you have to give yourself permission to do things—to sit down and write, to have your own voice. But you also need to give yourself permission to make things that aren’t perfect, to let go of unrealistic and impossible expectations. Because I find peace in scholastics, I tend to assign grades to everything—my critiquing voice is always on, so I need to up the volume on the voice saying, “You made something! Now go make more!”
Every piece of art has an audience. You have a unique voice that will find the ears that need to hear it. What’s difficult now is having access to that audience—how do you get your work out there to the people who will appreciate it? That’s a huge question that storytellers of all kinds are faced with.
JESSICA: How do you stay motivated?
NICOLE: I read something that said (to be a good actor), you need to work at least 40 hours a week. So…is that above and beyond the 40 hours a week I already have to work at my day job? In the film industry, the people are wonderful but the guidelines tend to be really negative—“Don’t do this, don’t do that”—and misleading. With so much information at our fingertips (on the internet), there’s also so much misinformation about how to succeed in the industry. Nobody has figured out how to get in their little time travel booth and live the week over again.
Last year, I was writing a lot of poetry, but also working fulltime at an engineering company. I would get off work, crawl through dinner and go to sleep. You can’t do the same thing 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, even if you love it. You need a nourishing space to create and a way to get out there, meet new faces, have new experiences and get some feedback.
JESSICA: Let’s talk about Murderer’s Maid. How did you prepare for a role that’s not only based on a real person, but also one that requires an Irish accent?
NICOLE: Short of lighting a candle and reaching out to my ancestors? (Both of Berry’s paternal grandparents were from Ireland.) I listened to interviews with Saoirse Ronan and Liam Neeson and listened to the films “The Secret of Roan Inish” and “Song of the Sea.” But there are so many different Irish accents. When I first started rehearsing, I was speaking in this high little voice like the Lucky Charms leprechaun, so I forced myself to talk in my own register to make it sound like me, only Irish. I made all my phone calls to my mother in an Irish accent and I would talk to myself while making my morning tea.
With this piece, having a basic understanding of the time period was also important. I always like to have a vague but solid sense of the fashion, society, classes, what kinds of jobs people had—it’s important to the story setting and character development.
As an actor, I also need to know what this character’s personal (internal) experience is versus how they’re seen by the world. It’s my job to impart that. I do my best to inform myself and make educated decisions. Sometimes as an actor you think about too many details—it’s a very slippery surface and it can be hard to find your footing—but I always aim for the most truth that honors the original voice as much as possible.
JESSICA: This is your first time reading for Stories on Stage Sacramento. What excites you about the process?
NICOLE: I love that this whole experience is women’s work: the book is by a woman, it’s about women—the protagonist is a female, the antagonist is a female—I’m being interviewed by a woman, the program directors are women…The women’s perspective has been my focus this past year, mostly by necessity. I just finished a screenplay for a feature film and I want to have a female producer, but I recently realized that I’m going to have to search outside of my usual network—which isn’t a fault of my network, but of the film industry in general. There are so many fewer women in the industry. That means there’s an inherent gender issue with storytelling and representation—women have always had things to say, but very few of them have been the ones writing it down. There’s an age-old voice knocking us down, which leads to some lost history. That means we as women have to be supportive of each other—there are plenty of men I adore and whose perspective I want to hear, but it’s the women I’m really trying to be there for.
In addition to being a professional actor and casting director for Stories on Stage Sacramento, Jessica Laskey is also a freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in Comstock’s, Sacramento and Sactown Magazines, as well as in The Sacramento Bee, Inside Sacramento and OUT North Texas.
More information at jessicalaskey.com.